There was a time that Jiang Cheng considered Lan Wangji a friend.
That time was brief. A span of three months or so. And if anyone ever asked him about it, Jiang Cheng probably wouldn’t say they’d been friends at all. Companions, more like. Or - comrades on the battlefield, that would be even better. Not friends.
But the truth was they had been friends. Three months is a long time to spend with someone, day after day, sharing meals and weary hours. At the time, Jiang Cheng really didn’t have anyone else and neither did Lan Wangji. It wasn’t only the search that bound them, but the desperation as well: that there might be some mercy in the world left for the two of them. That out of everyone else they’d lost, Wei Wuxian at least should live.
He hadn’t understood at the time what Wei Wuxian was to Lan Wangji, though he glimpsed the edges of it over campfires and tea house tables, in the ragged, streaked light of dawn. It was too big to look at all at once, but that had suited Jiang Cheng just fine. After all, he felt the same way. He too loved so fiercely that it was all-consuming. In many ways it was a relief to look at Lan Wangji, the peerless jade, and see him cracking apart from the same thing that crumbled the ground beneath Jiang Cheng’s feet. It felt like trust, and also as if he could breathe again. On the road, they were only themselves, stripped away of everything except that singular hope, that singular goal: that Wei Wuxian should live.
So yes, they’d been friends.
Jiang Cheng is about to die. He feels the truth of it like an old friend. The rain falls like blows on his back. His boots are heavy with mud. His cloak, too, is heavy with mud, and the blood that flows ceaselessly from his neck. He can’t tell where he is, where the edges of the forest are, if he’s walking in a straight line or in circles like a fool. He can’t remember when he was separated from the rest of his disciples, the other cultivators who had joined the hunt. He’d woken up in a pool of liquid that was as much blood as water, and he’d been alone. Occasionally, Zidian sparks on his hand, throwing flashes of purple light against trees, trees, and more trees: no path or road in sight, no markers, no signs of struggle or passage, just more fucking trees. His other hand is clasped over the wound on his neck, pointlessly. Jiang Cheng will die in this forest, alone. He feels a grim sort of satisfaction about it.
This was probably how he was always bound to end up. No drama, no public display. Just a fool bleeding out in the woods, no better than he ought to be.
He staggers, finally. Down on his hands and knees in the sucking, sticking mud. He notices, absurdly, that he’s fallen on a slope: there’s water rushing over his knuckles, icy and gritty, fast enough that it must be going downhill. It’s not helpful. It doesn’t tell him anything. The whole damn region is a mountain range. He’s cold. It’s been so long since he was cold that he’d almost forgotten what it was like. His fingers have gone corpse pale. Even the blood on his neck feels cold, indistinguishable from the rain as it pumps sluggishly out of his body.
Zidian flashes, muted in the rain of the mud, and at the edge of his graying vision something moves. There’s something white in the trees.
Jiang Cheng laughs. Rain streams down his face and makes it bubble out of his mouth. He chokes on it - the rainwater and the laugh. “No,” he says. He says it again, as firmly as he can. “No.”
The white figure approaches in flashes, caught by Zidian’s purple light. Dead still and then closer, a little closer still.
It’s hard to avoid a man, in the world they live in. The years after - after everything, after the war, after -
Even now, it’s hard for him to say their names.
Anyway, after, Jiang Cheng needed allies. Yunmeng Jiang needed allies. Yunmeng Jiang needed farming equipment, and seeds, and machines for the weaving and dyeing of textiles, which was how the Jiang had made their wealth in the first place. They needed money. It came, eventually, from the Lans - through a circuitous route from Jin Guangyao, who would always soften up enough to put a good word in with Zewu Jun, as long as Jiang Cheng brought A-Ling with him to Carp Tower. He’d said: the Lan need ways to process silk. Their factories were damaged by the Wen. Maybe you can be useful to each other.
So he’d gone to the Lan. Climbed their damned stairs, was accepted and housed not in the junior dormitories but in rooms befitting his status. He met many times with Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren, and made Gusu Lan a tidy profit on their investments in Yunmeng. He didn’t see Lan Wangji at all for three or four years, until one day he came to Cloud Recesses and the man tried to kill him.
Lan Xichen intervened, barely. After that he didn’t see Lan Wangji for a further two years, during which he bought ownership of Yunmeng’s industries back from Gusu Lan, and started turning his own profit with indigo dyes, rich colors that not even the Lan could achieve. New disciples came in droves. A-Ling learned to read. That year’s harvest was good, and the winter secure, and Jiang Cheng managed to sleep through the night every once in a while. His clan was thriving; his city was strong. Other clans began to seek him out for money, for business, for allyship. He spent as much time in Yunmeng as out of it: at banquets, at conferences, at the celebrations of important men. Lan Wangji was too good for events like these, of course. No - that year they met on the road, each of them flocked with disciples, and Lan Wangji stared right through Jiang Cheng, as if he wasn’t there at all.
Jiang Cheng wakes. He wasn’t expecting to. He’s - warm. Warmer, at any rate. His body aches with fever. He tries to turn his neck and is stopped by a thick layer of bandages, wadded up batting underneath, as large as a goiter. The smell of medicinal herbs, and a fire, and -
“No,” Jiang Cheng groans. He sounds like he’s already dead. “Anyone but you.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t bother to look at him. His neck is bent over his qin on the other side of the small fire, carefully examining the instrument for grime and imperfections. The light of the fire bounces off it and up into his face, which is as composed as every other time Jiang Cheng has seen it, except once. They’re in a cave. Low ceiling, rotten smell, damp stone beneath his back. Not a place that can be stayed in for long. Lan Wangji must have picked up Jiang Cheng’s carcass and sought the closest shelter.
The air shivers with the sound of music unplayed, with the drum of the rain just outside. Trapped, until sunrise at least. Truly, Jiang Cheng’s suffering knows no end. He drops his head back against the bare stone - and then picks it up again, looking around warily. “Where is he?”
Lan Wangji makes no answer.
“I thought you two were joined at the hip these days,” Jiang Cheng says. “That’s what people say, anyway.”
Lan Wangji makes no reply.
“I thought you were going to leave me out there to die,” Jiang Cheng says. He closes his eyes. Lan Wangji couldn’t be bothered to put something under his head; it’s just bare stone. “Seems like something you’d do. Especially if he’s not here.”
Lan Wangji looks up. He meets Jiang Cheng’s eyes for a moment, and then looks back down. His hands are still on the qin’s strings, poised for chords. He looks like a statue in his stillness, his spine perfectly straight, his robes folded elegantly around him. There’s a thick smear of blood drying on his shoulder, scraped all the way down the front of his chest. Jiang Cheng’s blood. There’s nothing in his posture that invites conflict, that begs to be shoved and yanked and forced to react, except for everything.
Except for everything.
At this point, Jiang Cheng has nearly forgotten what Lan Wangji’s voice actually sounds like.
Well. That’s not true. Three months is a long time to spend with someone. And Lan Wangji is perfectly capable of speaking, as little or as much as he wants. They’d talked about a lot of things, those three months. Jiang Cheng, especially, had talked about a lot of things. It had been the first time since Lotus Pier burned that anyone asked him about it. What he’d seen. What had happened just before. What had happened since. And he'd listened, too - almost beside himself, he’d listened. Lan Wangji was an excellent storyteller. He painted beautiful pictures of terrible things. Every time Jiang Cheng had gone to Cloud Recesses after the war - every single time - he thought about the way it had smelled of cedar as it burned, and the heavy stink of cloth and fat and hair underneath. His own leg would ache as he lay sleepless in Gusu Lan’s most well appointed guest quarters, remembering the way that the screams had died away slowly, leaving only the voices of cicadas behind.
They’d gone through it together, is the point. And not everything had changed, once they found Wei Wuxian - once he’d found them, accidentally. There were times in the years that followed that Jiang Cheng’s eyes found Lan Wangji’s, and he’d found his own fears and dread reflected back at him.
He thinks, maybe, that Lan Wangji is not allowed to speak to him. Drawing a sword on a clan leader is a serious offense by itself, much less drawing a sword on an important trading partner of Gusu Lan. He asked Nie Huaisang about it once, but had only received a disbelieving stare in return, and the only answer he gives anyone anymore. Even that was a long time ago. He thinks maybe there were ten years or so where Lan Wangji never spoke to him directly, without the filter of his brother or his - son? Ward? Jiang Cheng has never been clear on that one - speaking for him.
And then -
Well. And then, one of them got what they wanted, and Jiang Cheng hasn’t seen either of them since.
Jiang Cheng sleeps a miserable sleep, and wakes up still trapped, still suffering, still with Lan Wangji. The storm is worse. The fever is worse. He can feel it crawling down his spine, squirming around in his chest. “I thought your people had good doctors,” he groans. “Is this the best you can do?”
Lan Wangji stands and crosses the cave. The ceiling is so low that he has to stoop. His hair falls in wet clumps over his shoulder, still not dry. He kneels at Jiang Cheng’s side, who feels the same flicker of fear that he’d felt in the forest. His whole body tenses. Zidian flickers on his wrist. Lan Wangji reaches forward - and Jiang Cheng grabs his wrist. The movement feels as if it tears something up his neck and down into his armpit. His grip feels weak and slick. “What are you doing?”
Lan Wangji twists his hand. Jiang Cheng lets go before he can be humiliated further. Holds achingly still as Lan Wangji grabs his chin and forces it up and to the side, exposing the bandages on his neck. His hands tremble at his sides.
It surprises him sometimes, even now, how much he hates Lan Wangji. How much he’s hated in return. The stink of their hatred fills the cave like stagnant water. He should be better than this, by now. He could have been, if not for Lan Wangji - because he’d tried, in those first years. To make peace, the way he’d made peace with the rest of the Lan, the Jin, with everyone else who stood and fucking watched as Jiang Cheng’s world ended over and over and over again. With everyone who carried stories and shouted good news, good news! for years, for fucking years. The point is, Jiang Cheng worked hard to move on. To make sure that what had ruined his life wouldn’t ruin A-Ling’s or anyone else’s. To forget. It didn’t matter that Lan Wangji hated him. That he had worn white for a decade, spotless white, eschewing the beautiful bolts of indigo fabrics that the rest of Gusu couldn’t get enough of. It didn’t matter that he could feel the prickle of Lan Wangji’s hatred every time he was in the same room with the man; hell, any time he was in the same province.
But it did. It mattered. Jiang Cheng has had so few friends in his life, and none since.
He laughs dustily. A wave of nausea rolls through him, and it makes him laugh harder: the thought of vomiting all over Lan Wangji’s beautiful robes, which are no longer all over white but the palest, faintest blue, lovely and textured and still not a color made by Yunmeng Jiang. Jiang Cheng hates him.
“I didn’t kill him. I didn't kill him. You can't hold it against me," he rasps, in between laughter that feels more and more hysterical as Lan Wangji keeps touching him, pressed up in Jiang Cheng’s space to see to the wound on his neck, leaving no room between them except for the unvarnished, ugly truth - which is what Lan Wangji gives back to him.
“You did,” Lan Wangji says.
Jiang Cheng stops laughing. It catches in his throat. He groans instead, as Lan Wangji’s fingers finish unwrapping the bandages on his neck, the sweat-damp batting and herbs underneath. He pants harshly - craning his eyes frantically down, as if he could see his own neck and how deep the wound is. Lan Wangji’s fingers are on his jaw, holding him still but not turned so far that Jiang Cheng can’t look up and see Lan Wangji’s eyes fixed on him, implacable and full of hate.
“You did kill him,” Lan Wangji says. “You killed him nine times.”
Jiang Cheng’s hands fly up. They grab each of Lan Wangji’s wrists, stilling him. His fingernails are claws, digging into the man’s thick wrist guards. Still, Lan Wangji continues: “Each time you heard a rumor of the Yiling Patriarch’s return, you took your men and you found that person. You brought them back to Yunmeng and you killed them. You did this nine times.”
Lan Wangji’s voice is thick and low. Even in his anger, his phrasing is graceful and efficient. His eyes bore down into Jiang Cheng’s as if he were any better - as if he hadn’t also spent years hunting every rumor of the Yiling Patriarch’s rebirth. He lets Jiang Cheng hold his wrists without pushing or testing against the hold.
Dimly, as if it’s happening to someone else, Jiang Cheng feels the wound on his neck crack sluggishly open and begin to bleed again. Neither of them look at it, or do anything to stop it. Jiang Cheng is frozen in the crackling firelight, and he’s afraid.
“Keep pushing me, Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji says, so softly that it’s almost as if he’s not speaking at all. “Find out what I’ll do.”